When Anthony Bourdain passed away on June 8 of last year, his friend and fellow celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern wrote in his Variety article that Bourdain “was the most charismatic man [he] knew”. He also shared an eloquent tweet saying, “Tony was a symphony.” Zimmern was among the many who felt a great loss in the death of their boldest, quirkiest, and most sincere friend. Former President Barack Obama, who shared noodles and beer in a small Hanoian shop with Bourdain back in 2016, tweeted, “He taught us about [food’s ability] to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”
Bourdain seemed to be winning in life. He had climbed the steep ladder from being a vagabond cook with his nose deep into drugs to a world-renowned writer and TV personality. In 1999, he wrote a brutally honest yet humorous essay titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” for the New Yorker about the secrets of restaurant kitchens. Seeing the essay’s success, he published his first book, Kitchen Confidential, shortly after. He then went on to publish 12 more books including cookbooks, memoirs, novels, and even graphic novels.
Bourdain’s voice demands attention. It grabs you by the face and plants a kiss so forceful yet beautiful that you are left fazed by its power. He begins the first chapter of Kitchen Confidential without mercy: “I want to tell you about the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly—a subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of ‘rum, buggery and the lash’ make for a mix of unwavering order and nerve-shattering chaos—because I find it all quite comfortable, like a nice warm bath.” He splatters words on a page like Jackson Pollock would do with paint on a canvas. The mysterious tangle of ideas, bursts of piercing energy, and edgy—almost cynical—humor entices the reader to eat up his every word.
The way Bourdain writes about food, however, is his greatest weapon. He is a sorcerer stirring bubbling pots of sensory intimacy. The images he conjures are almost too potent to read out loud without shivering. In describing the moment he first fell in love with the pure art of food, he takes us to his fourth grade summer in his family’s Southern French home in an oyster village: “With a snubby, rust-covered knife, [the oyster man] popped the [oyster] open and handed it to me, everyone watching now, my little brother shrinking away from this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive… It tasted of seawater… of brine and flesh… and somehow… of the future.”
As the story goes according to Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain was inspired to take on the world after an epiphany from a trip to Tokyo in 1999. He wanted to meet the people of places beyond his small circle of culinary New York and eat all the food the world had to offer. Sitting down with his friend and colleague, reporter Anderson Cooper, he talked about his philosophy of culture over plates of Japanese delicacies, Bourdain style (there was chicken elbow). “People are telling their story when they give you food,” he told Cooper (CNN).
Yet he himself was the master storyteller. “Anthony Bourdain saw the world and experienced life in a way most people never will,” Cooper said in his tribute video to Bourdain last year. Bourdain let himself into others’ cultures when he accepted their food. Through his constant searching for the best local food and heartfelt interactions with the makers of the meals, Bourdain brought his journeys to us. He introduced a new world and a new perspective to all the picky eaters, the ignorant pedants, and the blossoming adventurers.
Bourdain loved running his own shows, yet he was still always wandering. By the time of his untimely death at 61 years old, he had traveled to more than 80 countries for his three consecutive shows: A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. Anyone around the world he had shared a meal and conversation with adored and admired his warm, open attitude. “I’ll try everything. I’ll risk everything. I have nothing to lose,” he declared in his first show, A Cook’s Tour. He seemed to be in love with life, his job, and the world. “Who wouldn’t do this if they could?” he answered his adorable daughter Ariane in one Parts Unknown episode.
Unfortunately, whatever Bourdain had that kept him going was not enough to conquer the darkness within him. He left in a shroud of mystery as it was revealed that he had died by suicide in a hotel bathroom in France (The Washington Post). It was devastating to see someone who had so successfully overcome his past failures and had grown into an irresistibly likeable man—an American icon—slip away so defiantly. It was unbelievable that he would leave Earth—this world full of pleasures, fascinations, and flavors Bourdain had never seemed to stop loving.
Despite his death a year ago, Bourdain is not and will never be absent from our world. He gave us so much more than he thought he could offer. This year, Bourdain’s longtime friends Eric Ripert and José Andrés—both successful chefs themselves—declared June 25, Bourdain’s birthday, to be “Bourdain Day” (CBS News). Chefs, restaurateurs, foodies, and travelers everywhere on the globe now have a designated day to commemorate the man who inspired them to pursue their passions. For everyone else, it is a day we pay our respects to the man who showed us a way to live.
“People are often surprised to see Americans eat their food,” Bourdain admitted to Anderson Cooper. We as humans have come a long way since Anthony Bourdain. Holding his hand in a foreign land, we have followed him along those narrow alleys we once would have avoided but we now know hold the finest elements of human life. To truly live is to discover, to eat, to learn, and to tell stories of the wonders of the world. Bourdain has already taken the first step for us.